Dishonored review: One of the greatest games of the generation
8th Oct 2012 | 04:01
The citizens of Dunwall - home to the events of Dishonored - are subject to terrible restrictions on their personal freedom. There's a compulsory dusk-'till-dawn curfew for starters, which is vigorously applied by the city's guards. At sundown, doors and windows are bolted shut by industrial-sized clamps, and anyone who does somehow manage to wiggle past them is shot on sight.
Things don't get much better come the break of dawn. Electrified 'Wall of Light' barriers have been erected around Dunwall to control people-flow and to quarantine poverty-stricken areas from their affluent neighbours. Anyone who stumbles into the barriers is vapourised.
While the population is kettled like cattle, loudspeakers boom government-fed propaganda into their lugholes and anyone who shows the merest hint of disease is immolated in plain sight by 'Tallboys' - looming guards on mechanical stilts who tower over the quivering proletariat.
Dunwall's civil liberties have been curtailed in an attempt to contain a devastating rat plague that has derailed the once-charming maritime city's recent industrial expansion and left half the population dead.
The city's survivors - largely members of the aristocracy who can afford the immunity elixir - cling desperately to a vestige of respectability, but that's all it is - a veneer. Dishonored's world is a grim one of routine, oppression and restriction. Except for you, of course. In Dunwall, you can do anything you damn well please.
You are Covano Attano, Royal Protector to the Empress of Dunwall. Or at least you used to be before the Empress is slain before your eyes by assassins. The Empress' consort then frame you for the murder, before kidnapping the Empress' daughter and seize power in a meticulously prepared coup.
But you're no normal man, and that's why a group known as The Loyalists go to great lengths to help you break out of Coldridge Prison in what is in effect a tutorial level.
The Loyalists are an eclectic group of activists led by the imperious Admiral Havelock. Their members span the full range of society - from aristocrats to paupers - but they're all united by a common goal; to overthrow the rogue government and reinstate the missing princess.
None of the Loyalists seem particularly trustworthy. But they seem to be your only allies in a city where loudspeakers remind everyone on the hour every hour that you're public enemy number one - so Corvo goes along with their plans for the time being.
Initially, each level sees Corvo travelling to a different district of Dunwall to incapacitate an influential member of the makeshift government. The Loyalists openly squabble over how Corvo should go about doing this, and their differences in opinion foreshadow the incredible freedom Dishonored affords you in choosing how to complete each objective.
As Corvo, you're an all-round offensive terror, equally built for stealth or slaughter. Depending on your playing style, you can go through the entire game undetected, or you can ensure every last citizen dies by your sword.
On top of that, you can augment Corvo's natural abilities by seeking out magical runes dotted around Dunwall. To help you locate them, you're equipped with this gross sentient heart thing, which offers hints and tips when you squeeze it with the left trigger. Except sometimes, it'll just say something eerie like 'Why am I so cold?' - and you'll want to drop the controller to the floor in horror.
The runes allow you to harness magic (which is outlawed in Dunwall, naturally). Depending on how you branch out your skill tree, you'll be able to teach Corvo to warp from rooftop to rooftop, or control swarms of carnivorous rat, or observe enemy movements through walls, or slow down time, or even possess any living creature in the game - from lowly fish and rats to your assassination targets themselves. If you put the hours in you can learn the entire lot, and then you've got the toolset to make Dunwall your own personal playground.
Corvo's supernatural endowments bring to mind BioShock's plasmids (which can't be a coincidence - Arkane Studios helped with design and art on BioShock 2), but unlike Irrational Games' creaky Rapture (which is beginning to show its age in design terms), Dishonored's powers exist in a world designed to give you room to explore them to their full potential.
It isn't the size of the levels that gives Dishonored scale; in fact in some areas it's relatively linear. Rather, it's how densely packed each square inch is with opportunities to problem-solve with creativity, verve and experimentation.
Every obstacle you encounter has at least three or four ways to overcome it. For every locked door, there's likely a balcony up high you can teleport to, or a gutter down below that can be infiltrated by a possessed rodent.
If these avenues aren't yet open to you, you could instead sneak into an adjacent back alley and eavesdrop on a couple of guards, who might drop details of an alternative entrance into the conversation. If not, you can pickpocket the master key from their belts while they natter, or just wash your hands of the whole thing, return to the door and bust it down with a whirlwind.
The 'route one' method naturally attracts the attention of the guards, who will descend upon your location in great numbers. Their skill level - coupled with the scarcity of bullets and crossbow bolts in the game world - means that going Rambo should ideally be your last resort rather than an opening gambit, but it's a workable fall-back if the best laid plans of rats and men fail you.
The dystopian setting is also well utilised, allowing Arkane Studios to introduce bespoke props that are ripe for exploitation, but yet fit in perfectly with Dunwall lore.
Take the aforementioned 'Walls of Light' as an illustration - electrified barriers that are invariably plonked in front in the exact spot you want to go to. Usually it's possible to take the long way round to your objective, but where's the fun in that? By fully levelling up Corvo's Dark Vision ability (think Batman's Detective Mode), you'll be able to trace back the wires to the power source. Remove it and you can be on your way.
But there are better solutions. Whale Oil is extremely combustible, so firing at it from distance yields the same effects, but creates a nifty distraction into the bargain. Better still you could fiddle with the Wall's polarity, so it zaps the guards instead of your good self.
Other times, the Wall of Light can be used as an ally. During an uppity masquerade party, we possessed the body of our target and steered her into a Wall of Light erected to keep revellers away from her bedroom chambers. This gave us enough time to casually stop by the buffet table before heading out into the winter night, leaving the bemused guards to play clean-up without us.
If it feels like we're spoiling the entire game for you, fear not; the stuff we're detailing is entry-level. Dishonored's world continuously surprised us with its malleability, and it wasn't until halfway through the story that we got a handle on just how much flexibility it gave us to make our experience our own.
It's not on par with the original Deus Ex - slice an ally in half and it's game over - but it's above anything else we've seen this generation, including the Deus Ex: Human Revolution reboot. It's the second playthough (and believe us; there will be a second playthrough) that really hammers this home.
Go left instead of right, or up instead of down, and you'll encounter new NPCs and new solutions. It's an assassination game where you don't have to assassinate any of your targets, as incredible as that sounds. Anything Dunwall pitches at you, you can bat straight back at it.
One potential hazard in designing a game of this nature is giving the player too much power; why bother sneaking around sewers when your fingertips can command space and time? Dishonored avoids this issue with one small gameplay tweak that makes a huge difference: neither your health nor mana regenerates.
You can carry top-up potions about your body, but these are scarce in the wild and purchasing them from Piero, the Loyalists' intractable inventor, will leave you out of pocket and deny you the chance to upgrade your equipment. And so even with a quicksave option, experimentation has to be measured and you have to make every last bullet, possession, rewire or teleport count.
The decision to limit the player's resources flies in the face of the current trend amongst games to mollycoddle the player, and Dishonored is a vastly better game for it. It breeds restraint into the player's psyche, and teaches them to respect even the lowliest of enemies. Best of all, it coaxes you into playing the game in a more exciting way.
Treating it as a straight-up shooter is possible, but to do so condemns you to a life of scavenging bodies for bullets and bins for bread. Compounding matters, leaving corpses in your wake worsens the effects of the plague, meaning there are more carnivorous rats and 'Weepers' (diseased humans who have regressed into a zombie-like state) to contend with. This creates a vicious cycle of having to scavenge for yet more bullets and bread, and the reward at the end is the worst possible ending. A suitable outcome for such a blunt playing style.
If you want one of the better (or 'less dark', rather) endings, it's a life of espionage for you, and it's in these conditions that you get to appreciate how tense and thrilling Dishonored can be.
Dishonored's is a fast, fluid and very forgiving brand of stealth, but it's one that is fair and consistent with its rules, and one that teaches you how to succeed through failure. It's a strange feeling, to be cooped up in a dingy corner fearing detection when you've got enough power at your disposal to devastate an entire platoon, but using your resources liberally is a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Twice we had to face difficult end-of-level bosses with barely enough mana to power a lightbulb, which was our own fault. It says something about Dishonored's multi-layered design that we were able to think our way out of even the deepest hole we'd managed to dig ourselves into.
Achievement/Trophy hunters in particular will find themselves getting intimate with Dishonored's inner workings, since they challenge the player first to minimise casualties, then to get through the game without equipping any supernatural powers, then to go through the entire game undetected. It's one of the most sadistic uses of the achievement system yet. We can't wait to get stuck in.
And the fact that we're so eager to leap back into Dunwall speaks volumes in itself. So-called 'AAA' gaming is currently stuck in a 'blockbuster' trend - of slickly-produced, beautiful games that are wrapped up in a neat, flashy package designed to show you everything it has in one fell swoop.
They're still great experiences, but their replayability is often non-existent. When a game rewards you for pushing up on the d-pad by showing you a cinematic of the Eiffel Tower falling onto the Egyptian Pyramids, then there's really nowhere else for it to go; no incentive for the player to explore or engage with the world on anything more than a superficial level.
Dishonored takes a massive step forward by taking a massive step back to a time when games trusted the player to figure things out for themselves. It is the first true stealth game for a long while, and it serves as a stark reminder at how empty the current fad for hybrid stealth-action games (see Clancy, Tom) really are. Dishonored is the closest thing to a Thief game we've had this generation, and Eidos-Montreal should take note.
Best of all, Dishonored doesn't demand you see everything it has to offer, although it is compulsive enough to ensure you will. Whatever route you take - up or down, left or right, the gutter or the stars - you'll always end up at the same conclusion: Dishonored is one of the greatest games of this generation.